A graduate ceremony is not for the kids; I mean the young adults, the next generation or, in this case, son No.3. Of course, the sons (or daughters) may believe that the ceremony process is all about them, but no; your average graduation ceremony is all about the parents. I know this because I had to force son No.1 to attend his. He was adamant he wasn’t going to ponce about in a stupid hat and gown. ‘But I want a photo to stick up on the mantelpiece,’ I whinged, ‘and photos to post off to the grandparents, and I like celebratory things.’ ‘You’ll regret it if you don’t go,’ I’d continued, a few days later (I’m nothing if not a persistent whinger) ‘and why go through a degree course if you’re not going to publicly pick up the degree, enabling your parents to brag, whilst passing around the photos.’ Son No.1 relented and I got my photo. Son No.2 was far more open to the idea, and I got my second photo. Son No.3 was a walk in the park, or a walk down the aisle of Canterbury cathedral.
Last Thursday, at 11.30 am, the Chancellor of son No.3’s university agreed with my premise that behind every graduating student there stands a graduating parent. ‘Graduates,’ he intoned, in the way that only a mightily important Chancellor can, ‘your families have all applauded your significant achievement in obtaining a degree but now it’s time to stand and applaud the people who supported you throughout the entire process – your parents.’ That’s a nice touch, thought I, as I wriggled about on my hard wooden chair, trying to bring a numb posterior back to life, whilst the graduates stood up, en masse, clapping and whistling.
The last graduation ceremony I am ever likely to go to, began at the ungodly hour of 5 am, in a student house on campus the night before. This was because the husband had noted that staying in a 5 bedroom student house cost £98 for the night, whereas the local Premier Inn was fleecing us for £200 a night, per room. The husband, however, forgot that where there are student houses there also tend to be students, which meant we were kept up until roughly 4 am, by the sounds of drunken hilarity coming from the house opposite, as a bunch of cool, confident, attractive, fag-laden students decided that their collective powers of conversation were so fascinating that the entire neighbourhood should hear it. (I’ll pause here to note that the word ‘fag’ refers to cigarettes.)
Nodding off at 4 am, I awoke to the sound of the alarm I’d set for 5 am, so that I’d be fully in the land of the living by the time it got round to 8 o’clock, the time we had to be at the cathedral. This meant I’d had one hour’s sleep. Cursing the husband for his money-saving deal, I then realised we’d no food in, or anything to drink, unless you count tap water (which I don’t.) I ended up boiling and sipping said tap water from a student mug, trying to pretend it was tea. I’m well aware that I was guilty of a first world problem mentality here, considering the developing world would love to have tap water on tap, as it were.
Whilst the husband and son snored on, I took a walk outside the student house compound, which was pretty darn nice, made up of rows and rows of modern terraced houses, separated into courts and interspersed with green spaces and lots of trees. Of course, I was looking at it all through the eyes of a middle-aged hausfrau; had I been dumped there as a petrified 18 year old it would have probably resembled Stalag 17. The only blots on the campus landscape were the empty Budweiser bottles and copious fag ends littering the ground from the night before. ‘Blimey, that’s what £27,000 worth of higher education does for you,’ thought I.
The husband, who’d been snoring loudly, then got up complaining he’d had NO sleep at all due to the tortuous student bed and the student noise (the beds were diabolical.) How do kids sleep on these things? he cried, before heading off to the bathroom, where the toilet wouldn’t flush and the ceiling and walls were showing signs of mould. £200 a night (with a cooked breakfast) had begun to look very reasonable indeed.
Once we were all up and suited and booted, we headed off to the local Sainsbury’s cafe for something to eat, which was actually open at 7 am – I found this amazing, which tells you roughly what time I normally get up in a morning. We then walked to the cathedral and straight into the gown collection area; well son No. 3 walked in, we were barred access until he came out. He then allowed himself to be ushered here and there by his excitable mother for countless photo-ops. ‘Ooooh, stand in the middle of that medieval archway,’ I hollered. ‘Oooh, look at that lovely cathedral garden, go and stand near the flower bed.’ I cried.
More photos followed as we queued up to get the professional kind. ‘Do you want to be included in a photo?’ the photographer asked, completely unnecessarily. ‘Of course we want to be in a photo; the husband hasn’t gone to the unheard of trouble of actually putting on a suit for nothing you know,’ I silently answered, whilst outwardly politely murmuring ‘Yes please,’ and rapidly brushing my hair, much to son No.3’s amusement. ‘You’ll have to stand on a box,’ the photographer ordered, pointing straight at me, ‘you’re quite small, and your son is quite tall, we want the photo to look balanced.’ I’m actually average height and nobody has ever asked me to stand on a box before, but I was prepared to do anything to obtain photographic evidence of son No.3’s graduation. Should the photographer have decided that I was quite ugly and it was necessary that I turn around, with my back to the camera, in the interests of a ‘balanced’ photograph, I’d have done it.
If you want to order these photos then line up over there, she demanded, when the enforced grinning at the camera lens was over. So, along with a thousand other parents, we then forked out £109 for the basic son, with parents, package and exited the medieval photo hall into bright sunlight, rapidly winding our way through a kind of subterranean network of ancient archways and pillars, following umpteen other graduates, their gowns flowing in the breeze (Oooh, it’s so Harry Potter, I kept saying.) We arrived at the registration place, where we left son No.3, so we could queue up outside the cathedral early in order to bag a good seat, which we did, very near the front.
We sat on our rock hard cathedral chairs for an hour before the ceremony started. Then a bloke in a red gown told us all NOT to take photos, or film any of the proceedings, as a video of it all would be on sale in a few weeks’ time. ‘Bollocks,’ said the husband, when I expressed my dismay that I couldn’t use the iPad I’d come armed with. ‘They can’t stop you taking photos, I bet everybody will.’ ‘They might send the Police in if I take photos,’ I said, as my brain went AWOL, believing that there’s really such a thing as the photo police. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ remarked the husband. ‘But an iPad is MASSIVE,’ I said, ‘how I’m going to hide the fact that I’m filming some of it, everyone else has got tiny phones.’ ‘Look I bet you £100 that everyone’ll start filming as soon as it starts,’ the husband said, getting more and more irate, ‘so just do it.’
The ceremony began and I reasoned with myself that the bloke in the red gown wouldn’t mind if I filmed son No.3 walking down the aisle, being that none of the big wigs were in the building yet. I then dutifully turned off the iPad (I always do as I’m told) only to find that as soon as everyone was assembled, and the first graduate stepped out to collect his degree, mobile phones appeared all over the place, held on high. Nabbing the iPad I turned it on, forgetting it takes an eternity to actually come on, and missed son No.3’s handshake with the Chancellor by about 5 minutes. ‘Blast, I’ll have to fork out on the video now, and I owe the husband £100,’ I thought, morosely.
Midway through the 2 hour ceremony I realised I was bursting for the loo, just as an esteemed German academic and political author received an honorary degree. He took to the podium and began to drone on talk about our recent exit from the EU. On and on he went, assuring us all that Europe was still a union and that we must not allow political division to ruin the original peaceful mission behind the EU, whilst assuring all international students that they were more than welcome to come and study here. Would it be rude to get up and force my way past a row of seated parents, thus interrupting the venerated academic’s spiel? Especially as I was sitting so near the front? The alternative might have been a loo-based calamity though, so I stood up, pushed past about 8 parents and walked rapidly down the aisle. I spotted a blue gowned helper and frantically whispered ‘I need the loo.’ She showed me out through a side door, where a bloke gave me a re-admittance ticket.
Out in the bright sunlight, I was immediately accosted by a graduate. ‘Are you going to the loo,’ she said, clutching on to her hat, ‘do you know where they are, I can’t hold it in another second.’ I scanned the area, rather like a military commander would scan the battlefield. ‘Well, there’s a sign over there with ‘toilets’ on it and an arrow pointing left, so let’s follow that,’ We walked about a hundred yards, passing a newly built cathedral office. ‘Let’s go in there, the toilets are probably in there,’ the graduate said. ‘But the arrow is pointing that way,’ I replied to thin air, as she sped off. I followed her anyway, feeling a peculiar obligation to stay with her. There was no obvious toilet in the building. ‘I’m bursting,’ said the graduate. ‘Let’s follow the signs,’ I said, pointing to the blue signs with the word ‘toilets’ on them.’ A man appeared. ‘Where are the toilets?’ asked the graduate, as we stood beside a sign with the word ‘toilets’ on it and an arrow pointing to the left. ‘Follow the signs,’ the man said. That’s what a graduate education does for you, thought I, for the second time in two days.
Back in the cathedral the ceremony ended, to be followed by two more that day – ‘boy they’re really churning them out,’ said the husband. I filmed son No.3 walking back down the aisle, calling out his name as he filed past our seats, and he flashed a 1000 watt smile.
And in that moment I realised that a graduation ceremony is about so much more than the handing over of a piece of paper. It’s about 21 years of holding your child’s hand, physically and metaphorically. It’s about instilling the importance of education. It’s about perseverance and hard work. And it was also a public display of the fact that son No.3 survived a difficult and fairly lonely first year. That he somehow managed to pass every demanding module of a Physics degree. That he never bowed down to peer pressure. That he remained true to himself, increasing in confidence and coming out the other side with an upper second class degree.
As we drove home I told son No.3 that I was really proud of him. ‘Ok’, he yawned, before sticking in his ipod earbuds and falling asleep, for the entire length of the journey, while his mum and dad chattered on about the wonderful graduation ceremony – like I said, it’s all about the parents.
But I also know that those three years were really all about son No.3, and whatever happens now; however saturated the graduate job market may be; however impossibly difficult to get into all those graduate schemes are; however big a let-down post-university life turns out to be; the digitally preserved image of that 1000 watt smile tells me that it was all worth it.